It's Prime Day 2017, which is Amazon's now-annual midsummer deals bonanza designed to entice the few of us that are left without a Prime subscription to sign up. Thousands of prices get slashed, as if being admonished for their insolent cost, and replaced with marginally more affordable ones. Delivery is free, unlimited, and same day in a lot of places. It's open buffet season on consumer goods, and Amazon has that Prime ticket dangling in front of our ravenous faces. Only I'm not taking the bait, not today and probably not ever.
This is not to disparage those who do subscribe to Amazon Prime, because I certainly recognize the wide range of advantages it provides, from the effortless convenience of restocking on basic necessities in a hurry to all the movie and music streaming perks that Amazon keeps expanding on. It's a valuable service and one that returns more value than its $99 annual cost, I'm not disputing that at all. But Prime has a lot of undesirable effects too, and those are the things I wish to avoid.
This is both a personal and philosophical matter, and I'll try to separate the various strands of my anti-Prime angst into coherent topics:
- First up has to be the matter of deals. Deals suck. Discounted goods are bad for me, as a consumer, because they nudge me into buying things I don't need just to be frugal and collect the massive "saving" inherent in the discount. That's how I've ended up with a collection of pristine, totally unworn sneakers that seemed too cheap to pass up. Discounts are also bad for the supplier for the obvious reason that they cut into their income. There is, of course, the ideal scenario where a supplier looking to free up space cuts the price of seasonal goods that need to be replaced at the exact same time as I need a thing of that kind and caliber — a win on both sides. But browse through Amazon even without the hyperactivity of Prime Day and you'll see that deals are the norm rather than the exception. We've come to expect discounts on everything.
- Insofar as possible, I think we should pay full price for the things we want. If we want to see more headphones like the Beoplay H6, more bags like the Peak Design Backpack, and more phones like the Galaxy S8, the strongest signal we can give to their manufacturers is to buy them at the full-fat price. Otherwise, maybe we just bought the thing that was on sale rather than the thing that lived up to our expectations of product quality. It doesn't matter if the producer is a local artisan or a global chaebol like Samsung, the best way to exercise any influence on the direction of consumer goods and design is with your spending. (This is an ideal that I admit I don't always live up to).
- Still harping on the issue of Amazon's deals, I find they have a devastating effect on the local supply of niche things. The locksmith on my local high street has no chance of competing with Amazon's prices, derived from massive economies of scale, and if it weren't for key repair and duplication services, he'd probably be out of business by now. Over the past decade, I've witnessed most of my nearby independent bookshops closing up, replaced either by estate agents, pizza chains, or the Waterstones book retailer that has none of the old charm but at least some of Amazon's scale. I don't wish to single Amazon out for blame in this, and I know Walmart has done far worse to the face of US retail, but at some point maybe we should consider our own agency in this move toward overwhelming and monolithic stores for absolutely everything.
- Free delivery is never free. Amazon Prime makes it unbelievably easy to shop unthinkingly. You can just order up a ton of things of the same class, try them all out, and return the majority, keeping only one. That phenomenon has been so prominent with clothes that Amazon formalized it with the introduction of Amazon Prime Wardrobe last month. But for each of those back and forth trips, there's a truck, a boat, a plane out there, pushing stuff around the world for the sake of our sheer indulgence and indecision. I don't care how anyone rationalizes this (check out my colleague Thomas Ricker's reasoned argument here), I consider it wasteful and polluting and not something I want to contribute to. As with paying a few cents for a plastic bag at the supermarket, being charged for delivery makes me more aware of the real-world cost of that delivery.
- Amazon's presence in online retail is so influential nowadays that the majority of other major US retailers (Walmart and Target notably absent) are throwing their own mini sales to fend off the effects of Prime Day. Best Buy, Macy's, JCPenney, Newegg, Office Depot, Sears — and hey, even Google has a Google Home discount running for a couple of days. As of today, this is a totally consumer-friendly effect of Amazon's growing domination (assuming the discounts aren't coming at the indirect cost of people's jobs), but what happens over the long run? What if Walmart and every other retailer never catches up to Amazon and Jeff Bezos' company ends up in a truly dominant position with no meaningful competition? Bezos himself advocates sternly against complacency, but having a monopolistic retailer of everything is a bad dependency to develop.
- Amazon's employment practices are s**t. If this list was ordered by priority or seriousness of the issue, Amazon's treatment of its own workers would be right at the top. It was the subject of an undercover BBC Panorama documentary a few years ago, and reports of exploitative working conditions at Amazon warehouses persist. Everything about Prime that feels unbelievably cheap is only so because of the unbelievably cheap way that Amazon deals with the people discharging its duties. Even white-collar Amazon employees have reported the company's work environment is not a healthy one. Yes, clothing retailers like Primark and consumer tech vendors like Apple and Samsung are just as guilty of exploiting cheap labour in distant countries, but that doesn't liberate Amazon of its own responsibilities as an employer.
I don't expect anyone to follow or join me in resisting Amazon's primal pull toward Prime. You've got your own priorities in life and, in all honesty, nobody's going to fix global injustice by disregarding Prime Day and taking a nice walk outside instead. But it makes me feel good to do exactly that, and so — in the ultimate expression of consumer choice — I'm opting not to consume Amazon's enchanting deals elixir.
Commentary by Vlad Savov Senior Editor at the Verge. Follow him on Twitter @ vladsavov.
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